Harald Steiner

CEO / European Real Estate Brand Institute



What the coronavirus can teach us about brand management

Bad news

“If it bleeds, it leads”: If there was ever any doubt that a blood-soaked headline automatically means a larger audience of readers, listeners or viewers, a study conducted by the University of Montreal and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2019 finally put this to rest. Communication scientists used authentic news stories to monitor the responses of 1,156 test subjects from six different continents to positive and negative news content – by measuring their heart rate variability and skin conductance. The result: on average, test subjects were significantly more attentive and more psychologically activated by negative content. In other words, people all over the world, i.e. across cultures, are more stimulated by negative news content than by positive content.

Too much blood makes people anaemic

No wonder the media have been so focused on coronavirus for more than a year now. A virus that threatens the whole world is the equivalent of the crock of gold at the end of the news rainbow. But there’s a problem. Using tragedy to attract people’s attention isn’t a long-term strategy. It might provide some short-term excitement, but it soon makes people tired, despondent and/or angry. The internet has even spawned a new word to describe precisely this phenomenon: “tangry”, a combination of “tired” and “angry”. Anyone who allows themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously, to be permanently emotionally overwhelmed by negativity soon loses the strength to fight for positive change, or becomes alarmingly unhinged and aggressive. Bloody headlines might get the blood pumping, but they also make people anaemic to life. Either way, the outlook is not pretty.

Caught in a dilemma

So “cultivating” a state of permanent emotional crisis is not the wisest decision – at least if you don’t want to end up with people fluctuating between depression and aggression. As soon as the focus on constructive aspects is lost, it becomes almost impossible to bring about positive change.  At the same time, closing your eyes to the facts – like a toddler who believes he can no longer be seen – is not much of a solution either. The coronavirus crisis is an example of the dilemma faced by the two extreme positions: At the one extreme, we’ve got everyone who starts their day by studying the latest infection updates and quickly descend into despair; at the other, everyone who adamantly denies the existence of coronavirus and seeks solace in conspiracy theories. If any of my readers would like to join one of these groups, please let me know now.

Constructive point of view

The way out of the dilemma is obvious: face the truth and consciously accept that there are two sides to every coin. You probably know the coronavirus case numbers and death figures. But did you also know – by way of example – the following?  Germany was back on track to reach its climate targets for the first time in years in 2020. The country reduced its carbon emissions by 41 per cent, primarily as a result of declining mobility and travel restrictions. Studies have already shown that working from home is associated with improved job satisfaction and a better work-life balance. Most people, I’m sure, would agree that their daily stress levels are much improved and they are more productive at home than they ever were in their normal workplace. Digitalisation has also kicked into high gear over the past year. And the best thing about all this is that fewer and fewer people have experienced this previously terrifying trend (keyword: machine replaces human, ergo job loss) as frightening. On the contrary: the much-vaunted opportunity inherent in every crisis is within reach – with a conscious awareness of both sides of the coin and a particular focus on new framework conditions and consequences.

Building digital opinions to replace traditional thinking

So, what impact is Covid-19 having on business, and in particular on your brand(ing)? In order to answer this question, we first need to consider what has changed as a result of the coronavirus – and we need to take an evidence-based approach, i.e. with reference to reliable studies. The key findings of such research? That digitalisation, online business, corporate transformation, and disruption through innovative thinking have risen to the top of companies’ agendas. The fact that everything can change from one day to the next has given us all – and especially the sleepy ones among us – a sudden wake-up call. The mere idea that lightning can strike has been replaced by the certainty that it will actually strike, with all the consequences that go along with such a realisation. On a deeply psychological level, this changes how we approach the world and business. Uncertainty is the new certainty, ambiguity the new clarity.

Another important fact is that people’s media consumption behaviour is evolving. Numerous lockdowns have not only caused our digital media consumption to swell, but have also changed it in qualitative terms. Communication is increasingly shifting into the digital realm. Opinions are no longer formed and consolidated by talking to people in a traditional setting, but in online forums. Marketers who are tasked with conveying messages through the media and do not react to this are, as it were, committing a professional act of denial.

Feed the right ones

To exaggerate a little (but not too much): What is the point of issuing a press release, publishing a product/service presentation on your homepage or launching an out-of-home advertising campaign to reach the hard (but limited) core of your regular clientele, if at the same time 20-year-old influencers on TikTok are reaching millions (and earning millions) with product placements? I don’t want to tar everything with the same brush – of course, each communication channel has its advantages and disadvantages. In the end, it’s getting the mix right that counts. But one thing is certain: if consumer sentiment and opinions – not least as a result of coronavirus isolation and changed media behaviour – are increasingly being shaped online, this is highly relevant for brand management. As a consequence, it is important to hand over the reins and skilfully feed the true opinion leaders! Brands that understand this new dynamic have a great opportunity to significantly increase the reach and impact of their brand messaging – and can do so while investing fewer resources.

What the coronavirus can teach us about brand management

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the (business) world more volatile, complex and ambiguous. This has created a new paradigm in brand management. In order to understand this, I would like to introduce you to a few key words from the Brand Work Manifesto, developed by the team of experts around Carsten Baumgarth, professor for marketing and brand management at HWR Berlin (and also a member of the European Real Estate Brand Institute’s expert advisory board): Brand participation over brand ownership / networks over the company / customer contact over studies / experimentation over protection / empowerment over top-down / ranking over recall / ethics over profit maximisation / exclusive touchpoints over standard channels / authenticity over market-oriented positioning. The manifesto’s meta-principles are: open, agile, digital, authentic. I cordially invite everyone involved in brand management to reflect on these principles. You will find it more than worthwhile.

With branded regards
Your Harald Steiner 

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